A summary and analysis of the dramatic trilogy by Aeschylus

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 78-104.

Introduction · Agamemnon · Libation Bearers · Eumenides · Overview

The Eumenides

In the Eumenides, the concluding play of the series, there are two distinct parts, each with its appropriate scenery. The scene of the first is the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the central door of the stage representing the main entrance, and around it the altars and statues of the gods. The time is the morning after the arrival of Orestes, who has come, as a suppliant, straight from Argos, pursued by the Furies, and whom Apollo protects, thus addressing him as he stands by his side:

"Fast bound in sleep are the loathsome maidens, ancient daughters of Night. Yet thou must fly, for they will chase thee through the wide mainland, over sea and island, till thou come to Pallas' city [Athens]. There, clasping the ancient image of the goddess, thou shalt find judges, who at last shall free thee wholly from these ills."

The ghost of Clytemnestra appears, taunting the Furies as they awake: "Sleep on, sleep on. Ye put me to great shame, for those I slew cease not from scorning me. But much as I have borne from those near akin to me, slain though I was by matricidal hands, no god is moved to wrath. Yet I have given you many gifts, libations poured and sacrifices offered on the altar hearth; and must I see them trampled in the dust? For he, like a fawn, has fled, slipping the net ye cast around him, and laughing you to scorn."

The Furies, thus roused from slumber, cry out that their prey has escaped them, and accuse Apollo of mocking them, the ancient goddesses, and of spiriting away, to their shame, the godless matricide.

Apollo bids the Furies go forth from his shrine, and threatens them with the winged snake of his bow: "Monsters, who lap the blood of live men's bodies, this temple is no place for such as ye. But there where criminals are slain or mutilated is meet abode, and the feast ye love, ye loathsome goddesses! Not in the sanctuary of a god shall ye dwell, but in the cave of a lion who battens upon blood."

The Furies in turn reproach the god for bidding Orestes take his mother's life, for giving him shelter and for hindering them in their appointed task of pursuing a matricide.

Apollo answers: "I bade him avenge his father; I bade him, as a suppliant, seek my shrine. It was but just that the wife who slew her lord should die at her son's hands, that there be no dishonor to the holy tie of marriage, which Zeus and Hera instituted. Not justly do ye chase Orestes; let the goddess Pallas judge our strife."

The Furies will not allow the man to escape, and hurry forth in pursuit; but Apollo is resolved to aid him.

For dreadful among gods and mortals too,
The suppliant's curse if I abandon him.

Now the scene changes to the temple of Pallas on the Areopagus, the side-scenes representing Athens and the surrounding country. Orestes enters as from abroad and, as a suppliant, embraces the statue of Pallas, which stood in front of her sanctuary. The Furies, clothed in black, with purple girdles and with snakes in their hair, follow him on foot, but now through the remainder of the play remain below in the orchestra. At first the Furies had shown themselves like beasts of prey frantic at the escape of their booty; now, with calm dignity, they sing their high and terrible office among mortals, demand the head of Orestes which has fallen forfeit to them, and devote it with mysterious spells to endless torment. Pallas, the warrior-virgin, enters in a chariot drawn by four horses, being called forth by the prayers of the suppliant. She calmly listens to the petitions of Orestes and his adversaries. At last, after wise deliberation of the concerns of either side, she assumes the office of arbitress which is offered to her by both parties. The judges are convoked and take their seats on the steps of the temple; the herald orders silence by a trumpet, just as in a real trial. Apollo steps forward to speak for his suppliant; the Furies in vain refuse his interference, and now the reasons for and against the deed are debated between them in short speeches. The judges throw their pebbles into the urn, Pallas throws in a white one; all is on the highest stretch of expectation. Orestes, in agony of soul, calls to his protector:

"O Phœbus Apollo, how shall this contention end?"

The Furies, on the other side, complain,

"O gloomy Night, our Mother, lookest thou not at this?"

The pebbles being numbered, it is found that the black and white are equal, and thereby the accused, on the declaration of Pallas, is acquitted. He breaks out into joyful thanksgiving, whilst the Furies rise in mutiny against the overbearing of these younger gods, which allows itself all lengths against those of the Titanian race. Pallas bears their wrath with equanimity, speaks to them with graciousness, nay, with reverence; these otherwise son untamable beings cannot withstand her mild eloquence. They promise to bless the land where she rules. Pallas in return engages to allow them a sanctuary in the Attic domain, where they are to be called the Eumenides, or Benevolent Beings. The whole ends with a solemn processional circuit and songs of blessing, while troops of children, women and old men in purple garments and with torches accompany the Furies as their retinue.


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